unlike many professionals who wrote epitaphs for a fee, Ben Jonson undertook to write "Epitaph on S.P., a Child of Queen Elizabeth's Chapel" for personal reasons. He had known the "S.P." of the title as Salomon Pavy, one of the child actors in a troupe called the Children of Queen Elizabeth's Chapel. A playwright as well as a poet, Jonson had observed Salomon on the stage for three years, and the boy had performed in some of Jonson's plays. unlike the professionally written epitaphs that distanced themselves from their sub jects because of unfamiliarity, this poem reflects Jonson's affection for the boy. While understandably not as poignant as epitaphs he composed for his own children, "On My First Daughter" and "On My First Son," "Epitaph on S.P." reflects a genuine sadness at the loss of such a young life. Written in 24 lines with the rhyme scheme ababcdcdefef, and a meter alternating between iambs of four feet and two feet, the poem matches the rhythm of everyday speech. Although dealing with an elevated subject, Jonson opted to adopt direct simple language, resulting in a clean, elegant style.
Aspects of the poem reflect an address to the audience from a stage, thus suggesting the child's brief acting career. As a Greek chorus to its audience, the speaker begins with a call to readers:
Weep with me, all you that read This little story:
And know for whom a tear you shed, Death's self is sorry.
Salomon's remembrance is couched as a narrative designed to elicit a single tear from those who hear it and even to make death, personified here through the use of figurative language (figure of speech), feel regret. The reference to the tear, rather than to uncontrolled weeping, suggests the story is so common that its very familiarity provokes a sentimental reaction, even from those who do not know its subject; such is the power of excellent storytelling.
The next four lines describe S.P. as a child who so thrived "In grace and feature" heaven stood in competition with nature as to which of their influences he reflected. Although "When Fates turned cruel," he was "scarce thirteen" the speaker emphasizes his few years were well spent, for "three filled zodiacs had he been / The stage's jewel." He acted so well, the speaker surmises, that "Parcae," or the Fates, likely perceived him as a veteran, thus mistaking him as an old man whose time had come. When they discovered their error, nothing could be done; thus, as the fourth line had stated, Death was sorry. They might have attempted a rebirth for the boy, or tried "In baths to steep him," a reference critics believe may have been to mystical baths, such as that of Medea, which restored youth to Jason's father. However, his "being so much too good for earth, / Heaven vows to keep him," indicates nothing could restore the child to life.
Jonson concludes on a positive note, adopting the traditional view that some souls prove too highly valued by heaven to be left on earth for a full lifetime. Resigned to that simple fact, much easier to accept than the reality of a cruel loss, the speaker gives hope to listeners that S.P. resides in a better place than he had among men.
"EPITAPH ON THE LADY MARY VILLERS" Thomas Carew (1640) A strong representative of a common type of verse during the Carolinian period, Thomas Carew's "Epitaph on the Lady Mary Villers" was probably written in part to cultivate patronage from the deceased's family. Poets had to earn a living, and epitaphs supplied an income. Neither original nor particularly moving, the epitaph does exactly what it should in commiserating with the family of its subject and in reminding readers that such losses remain ubiquitous and may visit their own families. Epitaph writers did not even need to know the deceased, as the approach often proved so general it could apply to anyone.
Carew begins by noting that the Lady Mary Villers lies "under this stone," as the epitaph literally appeared on a grave marker. He adds that "with weeping eyes" her parents and friends placed her "in earth." He next speaks directly to those who will in the future view the stone, writing, "If any of them (Reader) were / Known unto thee, shed a tear," inviting those who may have known Mary Villers or any in the funeral party to feel sympathy. He extends his invitation to readers to identify with the bereaved, whether they had personal knowledge or not, continuing,
Or if thyself possess a gem, As dear to thee, as this to them, Though a stranger to this place, Bewail in theirs, thine own hard case.
In other words, while passers-by may not be familiar with that particular grave or graveyard, they may know of one that cradles their own beloved. With terms such as bewail, Carew invites readers to share the heightened emotion of grief that remains a universal human experience because of death. He concludes with a couplet that modern readers may find imbued with unintentional humor, due to a forced rhyme: "For thou perhaps at thy return / Mayest find thy Darling in an Urne."
ESSAY ON CRITICISM, AN Alexander Pope (1711) Alexander Pope wrote An Essay on Criticism at an early age yet created a work worthy of a far more experienced hand. He involves himself in the ongoing dispute between the values of the traditional as compared to the contemporary, the ancient to the modern. A didactic piece, An Essay on Criticism offers much opinion and judgment regarding the occupation of publicly expressing one's opinion regarding art. While the poem exudes a negative tone, it resulted more from Pope's attempts to shape a witty piece than from his true dislike of those upon whom he depended for exposure to the public. The public listened to those critics; otherwise, Pope would not have spent the energy in advising them how to go about their criticism.
Samuel Johnson wrote that although Pope often "professes contempt of the world" and "pretend [s] indifference," such "dispositions" were merely "counterfeited" for effect. He asks, "How could he despise those whom he lived by pleasing, and on whose approbation his esteem of himself was superstructed? Why should he hate those to whose favour he owed his honour and his ease?" Johnson pronounced Pope "sufficiently 'a fool to Fame'" that he would not really place himself at risk with critics. If accurate, Johnson's summation of Pope's satiric approach counters much of modern criticism, which assumes Pope's honesty in his evaluation of others: "His scorn of the Great is repeated too often to be real: no man thinks much of that which he despises; and as falsehood is always in danger of inconsistency he makes it his boast at another time that he lives among them."
An Essay on Criticism was the first comprehensive statement in English regarding literary criticism and was celebrated by Pope's fellow writers. He discusses terms seen repeated constantly in criticism, such as wit,
Nature, and genius, as he imitates Horace's approach in his Art of Poetry. In so doing, he answers his own query as to the importance of the classics to contemporary writing. Should they act as models, or should writers take inspiration only from natural knowledge, that gained through intuition? If one continued to utilize the masters, should it be only as a suggested pattern, or as prescriptive instruction? He divides his poem into three sections, each with a different purpose. The first portion suggests a compromise between warring opinions, the second provides analysis of weak criticism, and the third offers praise for the classics. Pope's purpose is not to find a solution, but rather to offer his opinion. He creates some of the great maxims of the English language, including "A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing" (215), "To Err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine" (525), and "Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread" (625).
Pope opens with a statement that pits the effect of weak writing against that of faulty criticism:
'Tis hard to say, if greater Want of Skill
Appear in Writing or in Judging ill;
But, of the two, less dan'rous is th' Offence,
To tire our Patience, than mis-lead our Sense. (1-4)
The speaker notes the importance of standards to act for comparison purposes, using watches, and our ability to compare the time of our own watch to that of another, as an analogy. This requires little judgment of us. However, judgment, such as that applied by critics, may be arbitrary, consisting in the definition of fixed and theoretical standards. Thus, "by false Learning is good Sense defac'd" for "In search of Wit" some "lose their common Sense" Pope suggests varied definitions for the term wit, from a cleverly framed expression to an intelligent suggestion. The speaker next notes that those who fail as wits try poetry, and failing poetry, they become "Criticks next," proving "plain Fools at last." He turns to Nature to consider the concept of "wit," an important one in the 18th century. Men should conform to nature's limits, but their pride often causes them to feel they may move beyond nature, attempting to become accomplished in areas for which they are not fit: "one Science only will one Genius fit; /
so vast is Art, so narrow Human Wit" (60-61). While "Wit and Judgment often are at strife," they are "meant each other's Aid, like Man and Wife." Pope notes the conflict has not always been present, as in ancient times, "Criticism the Muse's Handmaid prov'd" (102). However, in later times, critics focused on trying to display their own learning, with the result that they "explain[ed] the Meaning quite away." He makes clear that in order to retain coherency in critical method, one needs a standard by which to judge excellent poetry, suggesting that poetry by classical writers well qualifies. Their natural beauty remains admirable, as one may develop fine guidelines from their execution, although such guidelines should not be converted into enforceable rules. otherwise, critics will force all poets to write according to the laws of criticism. The section concludes with the maxim that society has a duty "To teach vain Wits a Science little known, / T admire Superior Sense, and doubt their own!" (200).
The second, much lengthier section focuses on the multiple errors in human judgment exhibited by faulty criticism. Generally the pride of the critic interferes with true judgment, and all sense is abandoned, along with truth. Pope stresses his belief that limited human understanding will never grasp the vast amount of knowledge that waits to be claimed. Crucial to valuable criticism is the critic's reading "each Work of Wit / With the same Spirit that its Author writ," and digesting the entire piece and measuring its effect on the reader, rather than counting its small errors. The speaker also notes that critics often reflect the political attitudes of their day. As a Catholic, Pope had suffered negative criticism that had little to do with his talent at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment ran high. He includes a famous statement regarding wit:
True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind." (303-306)
In other words, the fewer tricks and trappings used in self-expression, the better for the poet. According to Pope, "True Expression, like th' unchanging Sun, / Clears, and improves whate'er it shines upon." Faulty criticism focuses on one aspect only of a poem, such as its rhythm or one imperfect line. Pope includes some of the most famous lines written in poetry about criticism, in which he formats the lines to match their topics. For instance, in order to demonstrate a slow-moving line, he writes, "that like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along," inserting syllables difficult to pronounce or rush. In an attempt to explain why some find weak poetry acceptable, he describes the approaches used by poetasters. They insert a line here and there that catches the reader's interest, while supplying little of true value. He cautions critics against allowing this approach to fool them:
Yet let not each gay Turn thy Rapture move,
For fools Admire, but Men of Sense Approve,
As things seem large which w thro' Mists descry,
Dulness is ever apt to Magnify. (390-393)
Pope takes up many additional pitfalls he warns critics to avoid. They include allowing the passage of time to tarnish fine poetry, criticizing it only because it no longer satisfies contemporary taste; he uses Chaucer and Dryden as examples. The passing of time may actually cause "ripe Colours [to] soften and unite" (490), improving the poem in the eyes of the astute reader. His caution extends to poets who sacrifice the quality of their work to a feeling of competition with one another for critical praise: "And while Self-Love each jealous Writer rules, / Contending Wits become the Sport of Fools" (516-517). Petty competition shatters friendship, and critics attack humanity, rather than poor art. Thus, the speaker cautions, never "in the Cri-tick let the Man be lost!" He points to the reigns of Charles II and William III as examples of "the fat Age of Pleasure, Wealth, and Ease," in which "Sprung the rank Weed, and thriv'd with large Increase," that weed being dullness evidenced in obscene verse. Critics should take aim at such blasphemy: "Here point your Thunder, and exhaust your Rage!" (555).
Pope opens his final section in which he will discuss the personal and ethical aspects of the practice of criticism by writing, "Learn then what Morals Criticks ought to show, / For 'tis but half a Judge's Task, to Know" (560-561). Critics must most of all "let Truth and Candor shine," as evidence of their own good characters. He stresses the ability of critics to be generous in their praise and to admit they may not possess all knowledge. The single idea that borders on original arises when Pope insists that each artistic work exists as an entity separate from all others, and the critic should know the creator's intent before judging. Thus,
'Tis best sometimes your Censure to restrain And charitably let the Dull be vain; Your Silence there is better than your Spite, For who can rail so long as they can write? (596-599)
Pope supplies a history lesson, noting specific poets of the past as models of judgments. He concludes his essay with a final caution to critics to be
Careless of Censure, nor too fond of Fame, Still pleas'd to praise, yet not afraid to blame, Averse alike to flatter, or Offend, Not free from Faults, nor yet too vain to mend.
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